In Praise of Battered Books




“Do you know that books smell like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land? I loved to smell them when I was a boy. Lord, there were a lot of lovely books once, before we let them go.”    

Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451


I remember my mother sitting on a blue wooden bus bench in Santa Monica, California, absorbed in a paperback detective novel. She was a displaced New Yorker, familiar with the ennui of bus, train, and subway stations.

As soon as I was old enough to read, she advised me, “Always carry a paperback book with you-that way you will never mind waiting.”

And that’s how it began – my collection of battered books. Library books stayed at home, but there was absolute freedom in a paperback, sand in-between the pages, blowing in the wind. It all began with a little girl in blue glitter glasses reading Nancy Drew on the school bus and The Secret Garden in the back seat of the car.  Then, my best friend in middle school introduced me to the dark, lovely, literary, wildness of Ray Bradbury. I’d spend the night at her house, the two of us reading Something Wicked This Way Comes, from one paperback book, under the covers, eating M & M’s, long into the night.

As a restless young teenager, I walked the tree lined streets of my neighborhood with Walden’s Pond in the back pocket of my jeans. Sitting under the fragrant Eucalyptus trees, I’d pretend I was alone in the woods.

And then there was the lanky intense boy, one impossible year older, who read Dostoyevsky aloud to me on my front porch steps until the houses around us turned into sharp silhouette and the porch lights blinked on. Our sweet sixteen love lasted one jasmine soaked summer, but he left me Fyodor, and a paper back The Brothers Karamazov whose cover has been taped back on a dozen times.

I was accompanied by Salinger, Ferlinghetti, and Hermann Hesse on my first plane trip to San Francisco. I was seventeen and free – drinking out of tiny cups at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park with my book propped on the table.

I have an old Art Deco style glass case protecting the first editions in my home. When I open the intricately carved doors the musty smell of old paper wafts and mesmerizes. But in my handbag, I have a revolving assortment of paperbacks, content to be jostled about, ignored for days, then read non-stop for hours-like old friends who can be silent together until it’s time to talk deeply.

I have a great reverence for books, and turn the pages carefully in my old and valuable ones, but paper back books get thrown into back packs, go with you on hikes, on camping trips, or barefoot to the beach on a sweltering summer day. They can be left out in the dew all night, and not lose their beauty.

Read them, share them, and when you are ready,leave them behind on a blue bus bench in memory of my mother:

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